I spent my girlhood in a little Italian pizza shop. A real nook of a place. Red walls, wooden bench-seat booths, speckled linoleum, cracked 8×10′s of displaced Paesanos, wobbly brass and glass ceiling fans, half-full shakers of oregano, red pepper flakes, and freshly grated parmesan. Royal blue menu boards with white lettering. Recipes born in Italy and raised in America.
There, I earned my first paychecks, accepted dollar tips, and garnered advice about boys from Alfredo, my second grandfather. His Italian accent curling and bubbling around rough English sentences. “Andrea why-a you wear-a flip flopas in the kitchen?!” His insistence that my high school boyfriend come inside to pick me up after my shift. The hug he wrapped me in when that boy broke my heart.
I worked there for years in high school and during summers in college. I remember the smells, the heady aromatics of sizzling garlic and onion, the air as thick and viscous as olive oil. There was no air conditioning. You read that right. 95 degree days inside a pizza oven. I’d wipe sweat off my forehead with the short folded sleeve of my red Casabella tee as I tapped the rickety register with fuschia polished fingers. The only moments of respite coming from shoving my head deep inside the freezer chest to scoop Ronnie’s slush on Thursday nights. Crowds pouring in from the weekly concert at the town gazebo. Nights that ended with flushed cheeks, sore feet, and slicks of blue raspberry and watermelon Italian ice on my forearms. Scars to prove the heat of the oven, long after the temperature gauge went wonky.
My memories of Casabella taste like steak and cheese subs. Shavings of rib eye seared to a pink center, sauteed mushrooms and peppers- both juicy with the rich drippings of the beef that sizzled alongside them. Alfredo scooped the mixture inside a soft white bun and topped it with slices of provolone cheese, sweet caramelized onions, and “hots.” And at 8:30pm, just as my shift was nearing its end, I remember his hands- thick skinned, olive, and wrinkled- pulling it from the oven. No pot holder necessary. There it was tanned and toasty, cheese bubbling, a gift to be wrapped it in white paper.
I’d guess I ate a steak and cheese sub five nights a week back then. To date, it’s my favorite sandwich order. The problem with my affection for cheesy beef hoagies is that they’ll never taste the way they did at Casabella. I’ve searched five states and hundreds of mom and pop shops for one that comes close, without any luck. The truth is, what I’m searching for isn’t simply a mixture of beef, mushrooms, peppers, caramelized onions, and provolone. I’m searching for a feeling of being young, and loved, and happy. I’m craving nostalgia.
I learned during my late teens, that family owned and family run, mean something. They mean that all who spend their days, nights, and weekends, slicing pizza pies and shaving ice for locals, are part of that family. I grew up in that skinny brick building, wedged between Lord’s Department Store and the old time barber shop. At sixteen, Casabella was a home. A place where calling in sick would mean that Al had more work than he should at 75, and that John would be stuck without someone to ring and answer the phones while he stretched homemade dough. And truth be told, going to work was fun. We shot the breeze, we argued like only hot tempered Italians do, we laughed so hard that customers questioned just how much vino was in the spiced sauce.
I went back to Casabella, years after I’d said my final goodbye, and the owners were new. The inside had been redecorated. It was cleaner, brighter, modern. But sadder somehow. I missed my friends…missed my family… and that steak and cheese.
Steak and Cheese Subs with Peppers, Onions, and Mushrooms
(Makes 2 sandwiches)
- 2 fresh Italian sandwich rolls- the whiter and fluffier the better
- 1/2 lb steak, preferably rib-eye but sirloin and other cuts work well
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 1 small onion, sliced thinly
- 1 cup sliced mushrooms
- 1/2 green bell pepper, sliced thinly
- a pinch of sugar
- a very generous amount of salt and pepper
- 2 thick slices of provolone cheese, cut in half
Ask your butcher to cut you a half pound of high quality beef- I used sirloin because it looked freshest at the market.
Set a large frying pan, cast iron skillet, or griddle over medium-high heat. When it’s very hot, add the oil and the vegetables. Saute for about 4 minutes, until they have softened. Add a pinch of sugar to them- trust me here, the sweetness will be much appreciated. Push the vegetables to the sides of the pan and add the beef to the center. Generously season with salt and pepper. Be heavy handed here. Stir the beef almost constantly for about 2-3 minutes, until it is no longer pink. Mix it in with the vegetables and remove the pan from heat. Split open your sub rolls, fill evenly with the beef, mushrooms, peppers, and onions, and top with the sliced provolone cheese. Place the filled subs in the oven to toast for 1 minute- until the cheese is melted and slightly bubbling.
Garnish with hots and whatever condiments you desire.